‘Botticelli: Heroines + Heroes’ Exhibit Examines the Power of Storytelling

It was purely coincidental, but the timing could not have been more perfect. On Valentine’s Day, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum unveiled its latest exhibit, Botticelli: Heroines + Heroes, which, for the first time, reunites two of Botticelli’s most revolutionary narrative paintings: the “Story of Lucretia” and “Virginia.”

The exhibition runs through May 19 in the Hostetter Galley and highlights Botticelli’s remarkable ability to transform ancient stories and make them applicable to both his own time and the present day.

Commissioned as a pair by the Vespucci family in Florence around 1500, the “Story of Lucretia” and “Virginia” make up the heart of the exhibition. The paintings tell the stories of two women who led remarkable yet tragic lives. Lucretia’s suicide led to the establishment of Rome as a republic, and Virginia’s death restored it.

“All the paintings we have brought together for this exhibit are narrative paintings, and this is the first show that looks at Botticelli as a storyteller,” said Nat Silver, curator of the exhibit.

In both paintings, Botticelli reinvents the ancient heroines as Renaissance role models and applies the stories to Florentine politics and the patriotism of his time.

Silver argues that the stories are just as relevant today.

“We feel that the issues that these stories raise, particularly the Lucretia and Virginia stories, are still very relevant to the present day, especially given the recent conversations around the Me Too movement,” said Silver.

The exhibit also highlights Botticelli’s leading role as an innovator of a new genre of painting: spalliera. Spalliera comes comes from the Italian word “spalla,” meaning shoulder, and it was a genre of narrative painting meant to be seen at shoulder height and hung on the wall. The introduction of this genre was significant, Silver said, because it presented viewers with a new perspective of viewing and interacting with art, as it was customary at the time to look at paintings from either the floor or the ceiling.

In addition to the “Story of Lucretia” and “Virginia,” the exhibit consists of five paintings, two drawings, and a handful of archival materials on loan from the Accademia Carrara Bergamo, which combine to further highlight Botticelli’s revolutionary use of storytelling as an artistic medium.

To include a modern perspective, contemporary artist and graphic novelist Karl Stevens was asked to create cartoons and drawings in response to each painting on display. Stevens’ drawings hang side by side with Botticelli’s and draw parallels between renaissance and modern styles to elicit a response from contemporary audiences.

Like Botticelli, Stevens manipulates line and color to tell the stories sequentially. However, he takes the genre of narrative a step further by introducing text and constructing a 12-panel comic highlighting ISG’s special history with Botticelli.

In 1894, Gardner purchased the “Story of Lucretia” from art dealer and close friend Bernard Danson, and, by doing so, she brought the first Botticelli to America.

“The purchase was truly a landmark in the history of collecting, and it highlights just one more example of how Isabella Stewart Gardner was a pioneer in her own time,” Silver said. “I hope that visitors appreciate how Botticelli made these stories relevant in his time and realize that they still hold contemporary relevance today.

“It is through the unpacking of the content of these stories and their meanings across time that we can better hope to understand some of the contemporary issues in our own era.”

Featured Images Courtesy of Lena Castro